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The Rich Resonance of Small Talk

A Primer on The Fine, and Undervalued, Art of Chitchat

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page C09

Confession: I talk too much. The good news is that I can enter a room full of strangers, walk up to anyone and start yammering away. The bad news is . . . well, you can guess.

All things considered, this has worked out pretty well. In my 16 years as the social reporter for this newspaper, I've marched up to presidents, movie stars and kings, unafraid to make small talk, otherwise known as the mother's milk of party coverage. I have an advantage, of course, in that I have a press pass and a notebook.

But small talk is a big deal for everyone, one of those essential social skills that separate the menschen from the boys. The ability to connect in short, casual conversations can make or break careers, friendships and romances -- it's how we gather information and, hopefully, make a favorable impression. If you don't believe me, there are thousands of consultants, authors and communication coaches who will (for a fee) share their wisdom and tips for breaking the ice, working a room and taking over the world, one convention chitchat at a time.

Pay no attention to the experts behind the curtain. They'll have you practicing opening lines in your mirror, which will make you look stiff and silly in front of a real person. There are only three golden rules for small talk:

1. Shut up and listen.

2. When in doubt, repeat Rule 1.

3. People, even the really shy ones, like to talk about themselves and will do so if you know how to draw them out. You have to be genuinely interested. You have to check your ego. If this is done right, they walk away thinking you're great.

Once in a rare while, someone comes along who innately gets it and turns a brief, casual moment into a truly memorable encounter. Former president Bill Clinton is a genius at it. In the course of two minutes, he can lock eyes with a person, ask a seemingly simple question, and make a person feel like the center of the universe. His remarkable memory for names and faces means he can meet someone and -- months or years later -- ask about their family or golf game. People are shocked and delighted.

Another legendary master at the art of small talk was the late Pamela Harriman, Democratic fundraiser, ambassador to France and the woman once called the "greatest courtesan of the century" -- a nod to her many high-profile lovers. What set her apart was her laserlike ability to make anyone feel like the most important person in the room. She wanted to know everything about you. She hung on every word, and seldom talked about herself. She made people feel like brilliant, under-appreciated jewels.

"She had the power to make people want to talk with her," William Pfaff wrote in the International Herald Tribune shortly after her death in 1997. "She was -- or certainly made herself seem to be -- interested in everyone with whom she spoke, and in what they had to say. She in turn had something intelligent to say to them." She was not, he wrote, an intellectual or particularly sophisticated in matters of international relations. She knew enough to ask the right questions. But mostly she let others do the talking: "The willingness to listen is seduction itself -- certainly to vain men, and in the world in which she functioned, all men are vain."

To listen that intently, to focus with every muscle, takes not only great skill but great discipline, which is why mere mortals fall short. It is so easy to respond to a casual comment by unwittingly turning the spotlight back on yourself: "You're going to Italy? We stayed at this great little place outside of Florence . . ." It seems so natural -- your small talk might be helpful, witty and even relevant, but you're nonetheless talking instead of listening -- and you can never learn anything while talking, except that you talk too much.

Thus, Rule 1 (which takes a lifetime for your average extrovert/egomaniac to master). In the meantime, there are a few other tricks for small talk with strangers and acquaintances:

? Introduce yourself by name, even if you think they know it. "I don't think we've met. I'm Queen Elizabeth II." It's gracious, it's efficient, it's smart. It's very awkward when someone starts a conversation with "Remember me?" and you don't.

? Ask simple questions. 'What do you think of the [party, conference, cheese puffs]?" Then listen. When you run into a casual acquaintance, ask what she's been doing lately. Then listen. Ask follow-up questions based on the answers. If you are genuinely interested, most people will be surprised and flattered. Resist the temptation to display your own special brand of brilliance, and when you catch yourself doing so, switch the focus back. Later on, when the relationship has evolved beyond small talk, you can strut your fabulousness.

"A great small talker is someone who has three to four open-ended questions that makes the person open up," says Ann Stock, former White House social secretary for the Clintons and currently the vice president of the Kennedy Center. "It ignites something in them that makes them start talking. After that, you ask leading questions."

? Use your body language. There's nothing worse than chatting with people who simultaneously scan the room for someone more important. Give someone your full and real attention during your conversation. Face him directly, and look in his eyes.

? Never underestimate small talk -- even though many people dread it, or think it's silly, boring or superficial.

"If you think conversation is primarily about exchanging information, then small talk looks like a waste of time and probably lies," says David Weinberger, a former philosophy professor and dot-com entrepreneur. "That's a view one finds frequently in technical communities because they think of conversation as the exchange of data between computers."

Think of it as a sorting system, by which you identify the wheat and eliminate the chaff. You will listen to boors and bores. You can always excuse yourself after a few minutes, and you'll have learned something valuable.

"In small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don't, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground," Weinberger posted last month in his Internet newsletter. "Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations."

Weinberger says he didn't become skilled at making small talk until he was 40 and realized that small talk is an attempt to find common ground. "You have to find what's interesting to the other person," he says. "You already know what's interesting to you."

? Keep it light. "There are grave dangers inherent in small talk," says Robert Barnett, a world-class lawyer and small talker. "If it veers in the wrong direction, you must be able to change the subject. People, including me, love to talk about their children. The weather is often safe, unless you're in Florida during hurricane season. Sports is good."

The goal is to never let anyone feel embarrassed about sharing with you. Marriage, divorce, sex, religion -- bad but delicious topics. Politics -- bad, good and probably unavoidable in this town. If you sense someone is uncomfortable with something he's said, never pursue the point. On the other hand, I have learned amazingly intimate things during the course of a dinner party and the speaker didn't bat an eye. A little small talk can go a very long way.

? Don't be greedy. Let the other person dictate the length of the conversation. Consider small talk not the end but the beginning of a relationship. If you've followed the rules, make a graceful exit secure -- at the very least -- that you'll be greeted with a genuine smile the next time you meet.

Consider the famous story about British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his great political rival, William Gladstone. Legend has it that a lady was taken to dinner one evening by Gladstone and the next by Disraeli. When asked her impression of the two men, she replied, "When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company